Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Last of The Old Guard by Louis Auchincloss

We did not become one of the major corporation law firms in the nation until the present century had begun, but in the 1890s we were prosperous and highly reputable, and Ernest and I were still in our middle thirties. And I was already having qualms about the methods some of our clients were using to achieve monopoly in their fields of action. While financial planning in the issuance of stocks and bonds to consummate corporate mergers and reorganizations did not involve us in strikebreaking or price-cutting of kickbacks or the bribing of judges and legislators, one could not be unaware that such things were going on and heartily endorsed by the cheerful and congenial entrepreneurs who consulted us in other matters in our paneled offices on Wall Street.

My reservations intensified one week when I was in Pittsburg reorganizing a steel company that had been temporarily crippled by a devestating stockholders' suit. I dealt with a bright young vice president who, in order to familiarize me with the whole corporate picture, took me on a tour not only of the company plant but to the part of town where most of the workers lived. In doing the latter he showed himself to be of a more humanitarian frame of mind than the other officers I met.

I needn't here discuss the meaness and desolation of what I saw. The men were largely from middle Europe: Hungarians, Serbs, Ukrainians. Many spoke no English; their homes were soiled and primitive. My guide told me that they were united in nothing but their hatred of the bosses. A recent strike had been bloodily supressed; scabs had taken many of their jobs. I returned to New York with much to mull over.

Lunching with Ernest at our downtown club, I could talk of nothing but the sordid living conditions of the foreign-born steelworkers. Ernest listened patiently and agreed that it was a pity that nothing could be done about it.

"But shouldn't we do something?" I wanted to know.

"I don't see what," he answered with a shrug. "Not effectively, anyhow. We're not labor lawyers. Or legislators. Or judges. The remedying of social justice is hardly our province."

"Yet we represent some of the chief offenders!"

"Not in their offenses. For that they have local or house counsel. There are things they don't choose to discuss with us, and it is not our functon to bring them up."

"But surely we could use our influence on them to show a little heart."

"How to lose a client in one easy lesson. Be sensible, my dear Addie. No one's asking for your advice in these matters. The companies we represent seek our expertise in how to handle their corporate infrastructure in the most profitable manner. What we tell them to do or not to do is always strictly within the law. That is all ye know and all ye need to know."

"But you're a man of good will, Ernest. Doesn't this all trouble you a bit?"

"Will its troubling you or me help the poor worker in any way?"

"No, I suppose not."

"You suppose correctly. Then let us dry our idle tears."

"You seem to have yours pretty well under control."

"I hope so. Look , Addie. I'll go a litter further. A lot of what you see is the birth pain of a new America, the inevitable price of rapid industrial growth. In a single generation we have covered the land with rails, electrified our cities, produced unlimited quantities of gas, steel, coal and oil. A gigantic force has been loosed, and all we can do is bow to it. And hope that one day a humanitarian force will develop in reaction, to control it."

"So, in the meantime, like ostriches, we can bury our heads in the sand"

"The ostrich is a much-maligned bird. Elizabeth Tudor was the greatest monarch Britain ever had because she solved so many problems by doing nothing about them."

"What about her defeat of the Spanish Armada?"

"Oh, a storm took care of that."


  1. For some years anyway I was satisfied with my busy practice. My corporate cases were fascinating, and my income was large. I had confidence in the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt to restrain the big trusts and allowed myself to imagine that he represented the future in American thinking and that time would ultimately bring about a satisfactory relationship between the rough business ways of the new rich and an increasingly skeptical public. In other words, I could play my little legal games and let the nation's future take care of itself. But in the Taft administration, when the government and the trusts seemed to be entering into too cozy partnership, I began to wonder if the liberal cause might not need everybody's help, including my own.

  2. In my office Ernest seated himself somewhat apart from the rest of us, on a sofa whose back was against my bookcase. It might have been to distance himself from the disaccord with his views soon to be revealed in his wife and daughter. Bessie sat up straight in a little chair facing my desk, and Mary Anne rather sprawled in an armchair, nervously crossing and recrossing her long legs and smoking. It was she who opened the discussion.

    "Mother and I have come to you, Uncle Adrian, in the hope that you will talk to Daddy about of his decision to retain in his partnership the man who dragged my name through the swill of his sordid sex life. We appreciate the fact that your wisdom and great common sense have done so much through the years to keep the firm on an even keel. We cannot believe that you will not persuade my infatuated father to drop his support of this perpetrator of a stinking scandal."

    Ernest coughed and sat forward to let us know he was about to speak and did not expect to be interupted.

    "Adrian, you and I have often discussed these matters, and you are familiar with my views. But let me restate them. I divide human beings into two groups where the libido is concerned. The first is that very sane minority that keeps the demon sex under a tight and permanent control so that it never interferes with the real business of the moment. The second is the majority who see it as the goal of life, the source of the greatest happiness, who extol it in the arts and mask its viciousness under the name of love. Their trouble is that they rarely find a mate whose feeling for them lasts for the same period as theirs for it. One inevitably tires of the other, but they never have the wit to learn to cope with this common phenomena. Hence all the screams, threats, and even murders.

    You, Mary Anne, have three times in your life discovered that a man was tired of you or you of him. And have you ever tried to face the fact rationally? No. In each case money and precious energy have been thrown to the winds to satisify a hysterical and pumped-up jealousy. Just because you can't find a man who will break off with you when you want him to, must I lose a first class litigator?"

    Mary Anne addressed herself to me. "Daddy's hopeless, Uncle Adrian. He's never been able to understand that subconsciously he's always hated women."

    "Trust a woman to resort to an ad hominem argument," Ernest retorted. " If you'd had one eye open, Mary Anne, you'd have seen that Bill Wright was never going to be a faithful spouse. Indeed, it was for the very dash that gave him that you married him! When I looked him over, I saw at once what he could do with a judge and jury. Which of us was the better observer?"

    Mary Anne almost screamed. "Mummie, I hate to say this in front of you, but do you think Daddy even knows what love is?"

    "That does it, Mary Anne." Bessie now rose. "I'm not going to sit here and listen to anymore of these grotesque speculations....

  3. El Greco did different versions of the same subject, and Ernest poseessed an interesting study of the cardinal inquisitor, the great example of which Mrs. Havemeyer had given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He loved to point out the sadism in His Eminance's eyes, which would have sent the painter to the stake if recognized.

    "The Church dictated an artist's subjects in those days", Ernest explained . "But a great many of the great painters were atheists, or at least agnostics, and you can easily supply in many of the sacred pictures that adorn the walls of abbeys and ducal palaces
    interpretations of biblical stories other than what the Church expected you to. Take, for example, the fresco for which I would happily exchange my entire collection were it available: Piero della Francesca's Resurrection."

    He handed me a color photograph of the masterpiece. An almost massive Christ is emerging from the tomb, one foot resting solidly on the edge of the open sarcophagus, the other still within, his raised hand holding up a banner on which the cross is seen. He appears to have paused, as if to gaze for a moment on the world suddenly reopened to his sight, though you feel there is nothing before him that is not known to him. Below him are are the four sleeping soldiers who seem to represent the insignificance of the far-flung Roman Empire. He takes no note of them, though he knows they are there, for he knows everything.

    "What is happening?" Ernest asked me. "What does it all mean? All we know is that we are awestruck; we are eerily apprehensive; we watch with baited breath. The large gray eyes of the Christ do not appear to take us in; his expressive gaze is for the universe and all its mystery. Has he come to save us, or to punish us, or simply to ignore us" We do not know the answer, but at least we know there is an answer. God help us! If there be a God".

    "You don't think Piero is trying to tell us that the Christian Church will now take over the world?"

    "Something as bad as that?" With its religious wars and massacres of untold thousands over minor disputes of theology, with its tortures and burnings, with its suppression of science and genius? Quite possibly. Whatever it is, it bears little resemblance to the gentle precepts of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps it is simply the consoling message of the peace of death that the figure has found in the tomb."

  4. As Talleyrand said when asked what were his relations with Lafayette: "After seventy, there are no further enemies, only survivors."

    Always worth jotting down the repartes of Talleyrand.

    Last of The Old Guard by Louis Auchincloss; Houghton Mifflin, N.Y. 2008